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Victorian legacies in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Strangers Child

2012 July 31
by lucinda matthews-jones

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, London: Picador, 2011, 576 pages, £20 paperback, ISBN: 0330483242

Till from the garden and the wild
A fresh association blow,
And year by year the landscape grow
Familiar to the stranger’s child;

Tennyson, ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’

I’ve just finished reading Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child. I bought it at the beginning of June in Cardiff after running a conference there on ‘Material Religion’. Exhausted and falling asleep on the train, I put it away and only got back to it last week. I haven’t put it down since. Indeed, I devoured the final third in one sitting on Sunday. I appear not be the only person who has been mesmerized by The Strangers Child. Brandon Robshaw, the Independent’s reviewer, noted that ‘I know it is a reviewer’s cliché, but I did actually miss my stop on the tube while reading this.’[1]

The Stranger’s Child begins in the summer of 1913. The Swale family have invited the aristocratic young poet Cecil Valence (part Rupert Brooke, part Oscar Wilde) for the weekend to their house, Two Acres, a pleasant Victorian villa in Stanmore Hill in the outer suburbs of London. Sixteen year old Daphne is awestruck by the poet, as is her brother George, who is having a relationship with him. During his visit, Cecil writes a poem entitled ‘Two Acres’. The reader is then taken on a journey to see how Cecil continues to haunt the Swale family through the twentieth century. The next part of the story takes place in 1926. The Valence and Swale families are more entwined now with Daphne having married Cecil’s younger brother Dudley. Cecil, the reader is informed, is dead, having been killed in the First World War. ‘Two Acres’ has become a war poem. The 1926 weekend upon which the novel focuses is dedicated to the memory of Cecil’s life. Sebastian Stokes, a Tory politician, has been invited by Cecil’s mother, ‘The General’, to interview people from Cecil’s life for a biography. For many of the characters this a turning point in their lives. In the next installment set in 1967, the Sawle/Valence family is set aside as Paul Byrant (a banking clerk) and Peter Rowe (a music teacher) take centre stage. We hear that the Valence family home, Chorley House, has been sold by Dudley, who is now divorced from Daphne. Despite this, Cecil’s presence remains in the novel. His tomb resides in the chapel at Chorley Hall, while boys (at Chorley Hall prep school) memorize his war poetry. Paul and Peter become a couple, but when we meet up with Paul again in 1979 we discover that Peter is now a TV academic and Paul is in London alone having decided to become a writer. The final section of the book is dedicated to Paul trying to write a biography of Cecil that will upset the Valence/Swale family and reveal some of their secrets. It concludes in 2008 with Peter Rowe’s funeral. The central themes of this book are love, romantic friendship/gay subculture and memorial/memory (much like Barnes’s recent The Sense of an Ending).

Having read the summary above you might be left wondering why I have decided to review Hollinghurst’s most recent novel for JVC online, especially as no part of the novel is set in the nineteenth century. Well, the simple answer is that the late-Victorian period casts as much of a shadow on the novel as Hollinghurst’s central character Cecil Valance. As the author Hari Kunzru notes ‘Throughout the book, an appreciation of the Victorian is a mark of sensitivity, of a receptiveness to the evanescent signals of the past.’ [3] Indeed, the term ‘Victorian’ is used increasingly by Hollinghurst in each section. It is a period that is never experienced by the main protagonists but it frames their lives in interesting ways, as each section of the novel comes to grapple with the architectural, social and moral legacies of the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the greatest impact the Victorian period has on Hollinghurst’s characters is the outlawing of male homosexuality. George and Cecil, from the beginning of the novel, have to hide their relationship from their families. This secrecy has lasting implications. George, rather than being able to embrace his sexuality, marries. It is only when he has dementia that his relationship with Cecil is revealed to Paul. In the meantime, his sister Daphne seems to have loved and married a number of men who were ‘queer’. Similarly, Paul and Peter also have to conceal their relationship. By the 1980s, Paul is able to ‘reclaim’ Cecil for men’s history and reveal his queer past to the dismay and shock of the Sawle/Valance families.

In many ways it is the material manifestation of the Victorian period that interests me the most about this novel. As my introduction stated, I picked this book up after my conference on ‘Material Religion’. Yet I did not release how important buildings would be in this novel and how they would be used by Hollinghurst to symbolise the relationship that twentieth-century characters have with their Victorian past. In the 1920s, Dudley modernizes his Victorian pile, including covering the jelly molds that George had enchanted Daphne with when he had been describing his visit to his family. In 1967, the Victorian past is forced unexpectedly onto the boys of the prep school when the 1920s ceiling comes crashing down on them. Hidden underneath this ceiling are the nineteenth-century jelly molds that Dudley has concealed. In this way the jelly molds become symbolic of the resurrection of the nineteenth century in the popular imagination of the twentieth century. In the meantime, Peter is able to build a TV career through his knowledge of Victorian architecture.

Yet it was the final couple of pages that really had an impact on me. Here we see how Rob (a book dealer) is both intrigued by recovering history but at the same time unaware of the part he, or rather we, are playing in its destruction. On a tip off he heads to a large Victorian manor house of a minor character to find the lost war poems of Cecil. Desperate to find them, he ignores the fact that the house he is entering is about to be knocked down. This raises interesting questions about how we understand and preserve history. Which Victorian things do we privilege? In Rob’s case, it is words of Cecil rather than the material manifestations of the past.

At the same time, this book raises interesting questions about how we define the term ‘Victorian’. For instance, I thought it was interesting that Hollinghurst should have Paul describe Daphne as ‘Victorian’ in 1979, despite the fact that she could more easily or more accurately be understood to be an ‘Edwardian’. Was it a conscious decision, or does it reflect the fact that we have a tendency to conflate these two periods with one another? What does it mean to say that she is Victorian? I was left asking the question ‘which Victorian’?, but aware that Hollinghurst’s use of the term ‘Victorian’ reflects the fact that, as scholars, we very rarely engage with the descriptive terms we use.

This was a great book. I had thought it would enable me to take a break from the Victorians and my research but instead it thrust the nineteenth century back in my face. This did not stop me from loving it, or from wondering what the next afterlives of Cecil would be.

Have you read The Stranger’s Child? Do you agree or disagree with Lucie’s observations? You can make any comments in the box below.

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[1] Brandon Robshaw, ‘Paperback reviews of the week’, The Independent 10 June 2012, accessed 27 July 2012.

[2] Theo Tait, ‘The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst – review’, The Guardian 17 June 2011, accessed 27 July 2012.

[3] Hari Kunzru, ‘The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst – review’, The Guardian 25 June 2011, accessed 27 July 2012.

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